Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is characterized by patterns of recurrent, unwanted, and intrusive thoughts that people are incapable of getting rid of, despite the desire to do so. These thoughts often compel those individuals to begin performing repetitive, ritualistic behaviors and routines, known as compulsions, in an attempt to ease the anxiety brought on by their obsessions. The persistent thoughts that mark these obsessions typically include images and urges that the person does not want to experience but cannot get rid of, and the compulsions are behaviors that these people feel compelled to perform even though they do not want to.
Individuals who suffer from OCD have described feeling plagued by their obsessions and compulsions and feel as though they have lost control over many aspects of their lives. They feel powerless to stop their obsessions and compulsions and ultimately experience significant disruption in their everyday routines, which impacts their academic lives, their career, their family and romantic relationships, and their social activities.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), 1% of the population in the United States suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder, equating to approximately 2.2 million people. It is believed to exist in equal prevalence amongst men and women. The average age of onset for OCD is believed to be 19, but 25% of cases are said to occur by age 14. Additionally, ADAA reports that one-third of adults who suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder first experienced symptoms during childhood.
Causes and Risk Factors of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
There can be a variety of factors that lead to the initial onset of obsessive-compulsive disorder in a person, but most professionals agree that it is a combination of various factors working together that cause a person to be susceptible to developing the disorder.
Genetic: OCD tends to run in families but, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), there is no conclusive research showing why some people have it, while others do not. Genetics also play a role in the development of a person’s individual personality and temperament, which can add to his or her susceptibility to exhibit anxious tendencies, including OCD.
Physical: Research has shown that there are several parts of the brain that play a role in the development of fear and anxiety. Neurotransmitters are chemicals in the brain responsible for transmitting message throughout the various areas of the brain. When these chemicals become imbalanced, they become unable to send appropriate amounts of serotonin to the parts of the brain that are responsible for managing a sense of well-being. This could then result in the development of anxiety, including OCD.
Environmental: There are a variety of environmental factors that can trigger a person to experience the onset of profound anxiety, including obsessive-compulsive disorder. For example, suffering from abuse can lead to the development of ritualistic behaviors because it provides people with an opportunity to gain the control they lost as a result of the abuse. Similarly, if people grow up in a living situation in which there exists much discord or chaos, the rituals that they develop will provide them with something that they can control. However, this sense of control can quickly spiral into a lack of control when the person develops obsessions and begins suffering from OCD.
- Suffering from physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, and/or neglect
- Experiencing drastic changes in one’s living situation
- Chronic physical illness
- Relationship problems
- Familial discord
- Death of a loved one
- Academic or career problems
Signs and Symptoms of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
The signs and symptoms of OCD will inevitably vary from person to person but, according to ADAA, the following are some of the most common symptoms of obsessions and compulsions that may be indicative of the fact that a person is suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder:
- The presence of unwarranted, intrusive thoughts
- Chronic worry about dirt, germs, or becoming contaminated
- Feeling overly responsible for others
- Preoccupation with throwing away objects that are not needed or have little value
- Excessive and irrational concern about harming another person
- Distasteful and inappropriate sexual or religious thoughts and images
- Excessive and irrational concerns about the order, arrangement, and symmetry of different things
- Aggressive impulses (but not necessarily acting upon them)
- Excessive cleaning, including repeatedly washing hands, repeatedly bathing, or repeatedly cleaning household items
- Irrational check and rechecking that certain things are how they should be, such as making sure the doors are locked, the stove is turned off, the lights are off, etc.
- Having difficulty throwing away useless items, known as hoarding
- Constantly touching and rearranging things
- Experiencing an inability to repeating a name, a phrase, or an activity (e.g. a person may need to turn a light switch on and on multiple times before he or she is able to leave a room)
- Eating food in a specific order
- Repeatedly asking for reassurances
Effects of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
The symptoms of OCD can be successfully treated but, without treatment, the long-term effects can be detrimental on the person suffering from this all-consuming disorder. Examples of the negative effects of untreated OCD can include:
- Social isolation
- Poor performance in school / missing school days
- Poor job performance / miss work days
- Impaired interpersonal relationships
- Substance abuse
- Suicidal ideation and behaviors
People who have obsessive-compulsive disorder also have a tendency to suffer from a co-existing disorder as well. The following are some of the most common examples of disorders that occur alongside OCD:
- Other anxiety disorders (including panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and/or specific phobia)
- Depressive disorders (the most common being major depressive disorder)
- Bipolar disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Eating disorders
- Tourette’s disorder / tic disorder